Adolfas Mekas (1925-2011)

Adolfas Mekas, Avant-Garde Filmmaker and Teacher, Is Dead at 85

Adolfas Mekas, a Lithuanian immigrant who became an influential avant-garde filmmaker and teacher and who, with his brother Jonas, founded Film Culture, the seminal journal for cinéastes, died on Tuesday in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He was 85.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Pola Chapelle, said.

Though Jonas Mekas, a prolific director and avant-garde film archivist, became the better-known sibling, Adolfas Mekas made a handful of films that endure as avant-garde landmarks. The best known of them, “Hallelujah the Hills,” a comedy that spoofed movie history in telling an elliptical tale about two young men and their slapstick pursuit of the same girl, was among the critical and popular hits of the inaugural New York Film Festival in 1963.
“Hallelujah” was praised at the festival alongside films by Alain Resnais (“Muriel”), Roman Polanski (“Knife in the Water”), Luis Buñuel (“The Exterminating Angel”) and Joseph Losey (“The Servant”).
The New York Times called the film “a modest little Vermont-made farce” that “surprised and delighted” the audiences “by boisterously affirming that life can be a ball and movie-making can be fun.”
Mr. Mekas (pronounced MEEK-us) and his brother arrived in New York in 1949, having survived a Nazi labor camp at the end of World War II. Sons of a farmer with a love of books and movies, they plunged into the bohemian intellectual life of the city in the early 1950s, founding Film Culture, a pioneering journal that began in 1955 with the then-presumptuous notion that moviemaking was a serious art form and a potent influence on the culture at large.
With contributors including Andrew Sarris, Stan Brakhage, Richard Leacock, Rudolf Arnheim, Arlene Croce and Peter Bogdanovich, it championed the avant-garde, though it gave thoughtful coverage to mainstream movie-making as well. (The journal ceased publication in the 1990s.)
Mr. Mekas, who lived in Rhinebeck, N.Y., was a founding member of the film department at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and taught there from 1971 to 2004; he directed its film program from 1971-1994.
Adolfas Mekas was born in a Lithuanian village called Semeniskiai (pronounced sem-uh-NEESH-kee) on Sept. 30, 1925. During the final year of World War II, he and Jonas were leaving Lithuania to join an uncle in Austria when they were captured by the Germans and sent to a labor camp. After the war ended, they lived in refugee camps, one of which was in Mainz, near Frankfurt, where they were able to attend university classes. They first thought of leaving for Israel — “They weren’t Jewish,” Ms. Chapelle said, “but they thought it was romantic, to fight for a new country” — but emigrated instead to the United States, settling in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn.

“It was all just misery and displacement and suffering and loss,” Jonas Mekas wrote of their early years in Europe. But arriving in New York City changed their lives.

“Now, suddenly everything was bright, exciting and available,” he wrote. “The streets of New York were open markets, like something out of Cairo. We bought three or four oranges on our first day. Here we are! We can buy fruit!”

In 1971, the Mekas brothers returned to Lithuania for the first time since their departure, and each made a film of the trip, Jonas’s called “Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania,” Adolfas’s “Going Home.” They were shown together at the New York Film Festival in 1972, an evening described by Vincent Canby in The Times as “rather more brimful of Mekases than one might ordinarily seek out, yet it’s also successively moving, indulgent, beautiful, poetic, banal, repetitious and bravely, heedlessly, personal.”
In addition to his brother, who still lives in Brooklyn, now in Greenpoint, and his wife, whom he met at a movie screening and married in 1965, Mr. Mekas is survived by another brother, Costas, of Semeniskiai, and a son, Sean, of Rhinebeck.
His other films include “The Brig” (1964), directed by both brothers, an adaptation of a grim play performed by the Living Theater about Marines confined in a military prison, and “Windflowers” (1968), an elegiac, Vietnam-era story of a draft dodger who is shot trying to escape from the F.B.I.
At his death, Mr. Mekas was working on a film about Giordano Bruno, an Italian thinker who was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600. Mr. Mekas described as “the first beatnik” and called the film, with typical cheek, “Burn, Bruno, Burn.”
His wife said she was initially drawn to him by his unexpected, demonstrative humor; on their first date, he threw his hat out the window of a taxi cab, she recalled. Another time, after a film opening at the Museum of Modern Art, he rolled up the red carpet, put it under his arm and walked away with it, as if to take it home. (No one stopped him, she said, but he brought it back.)

“These two guys,” she said about the Mekas brothers. “I always told our son: ‘They came to this country with $10. They couldn’t speak the language, and they started the first serious film journal in English. Not bad.’ ”

BRUCE WEBER pour le NY Times


Cinéaste et professeur Adolfas Mekas, mort le 31 mai 2011 à l’âge de 85 ans. C’était un homme chaleureux, généreux, joyeux et drôle.

L’histoire du cinéma est traversée par des frères : Lumière, Coen, Dardenne, Marx... Nés en Lituanie, les frères Mekas fuient leur pays natal pendant la dernière année de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale. Ils travaillent pendant un an dans un camp de travail vers Hambourg, puis étudient la littérature et le théâtre à Mainz, pendant trois années passées dans des camps de personnes déplacées. Ils arrivent à New York en 1949. Travaillant alors dans des usines diverses, ils achètent une caméra Bolex et commencent à filmer la vie qui les entoure.
Entre 1951 et 1953, Adolfas est enrôlé dans l’armée américaine en France en tant que photographe. (Son frère Jonas n’a pas été enrôlé car il avait plus de 25 ans.) Entre 1954 et 1976, Adolfas est cofondateur et corédacteur avec Jonas de « Film Culture » qui s’impose comme la première revue sérieuse de cinéma aux Etats-Unis. En 1961 ils fondent également la « New York Filmmakers’ Cooperative », le premier centre associatif de distribution pour le cinéma indépendant, ainsi que le New American Cinema Group. Adolfas participe à la première performance Fluxus à New York à côté de Yoko Ono en 1961. Son premier long métrage, Hallelujah the Hills, est montré à Cannes en 1963 et sort à Paris à la Pagode (Godard en fait l’éloge dans Les Cahiers cette même année). Pour Adolfas, le sens de son film est « Chapeaux à tous les cinéastes qui m’ont précédé et qui m’ont appris à aimer le cinéma. »
Il réalise également les longs métrages Double-Barreled Detective Story (1965), Windflowers (1968), et Going Home (1971) qui documente le retour des deux frères en Lituanie pour la première fois depuis la guerre (le film de Jonas Mekas, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, était tourné lors du même voyage). Les deux frères ont co-réalisé The Brig (1964). Adolfas signe le montage de Goldstein, le premier film de Philip Kaufman en 1964.
En 1971, alors que Jonas Mekas s’occupe de l’Anthology Film Archives, Adolfas rejoint Bard College en tant que professeur honoraire où il fonde le « Départment de cinéma du Peuple ». Il y enseigne pendant 33 ans. Entre 1983 et 1989 il dirige également le Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts.
Adolfas a écrit de nombreux scénarios de films, dont certains publiés en tant que livres : The Father, The Son and a Holy Cow ; When the Turtles Collapse ; Nailing the Coffin. Pour chaque livre, il s’invente une nouvelle biographie : tisseur de panier du Dakota du Nord, chercheur d’opale à l’ouest de l’Australie, cultivateur de champignons... Il était également traducteur anglais et éditeur des poèmes lituaniens de son frère.
Adolfas disait qu’il est important de faire de bons films et de les aimer car l'enfer est une pièce où l'on est forcé de regarder tous ses films en boucle pour l’éternité ! Nous imaginons qu’il s’y amuse bien.

Pip Chodorov pour Re:Voir


Going Home (1972)
Compañeras y compañeros (1970)
Windflowers (1968)
The Double-Barrelled Detective Story (1965)
Skyscraper (1965)
Hallelujah the Hills (1963)

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